Guru Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - Ci­ta­tion: Jøns­son KA, et al. 2012. Eco­log­i­cal and evo­lu­tion­ary de­ter­mi­nants for the adap­tive ra­di­a­tion of the Mada­gas­can van­gas. Proc Natl Acad Sci. Doi:10.1073/ pnas.1115835109.

A hook-billed vanga flies with pre­cise move­ments through the un­der­story of the rain­for­est, flash­ing white on his oth­er­wise black wings. A chameleon hangs from his strong, black bill, as his eyes fo­cus on a fa­vorite branch where he perches. He wedges the chameleon’s head into a fork be­tween two branches, leav­ing its body dan­gling, and be­gins to pull it apart sys­tem­at­i­cally. In the dis­tance, two white-throated oxy­labes sing in duet from the dense un­der­story; the first whis­tles loudly up and down a scale through her long grey bill: whit-treet tirooet teeoo whireeet! The other waits un­til this song is half-fin­ished then adds his own loud, rat­tled call. Mean­while, in the low­lands, a scaly ground-roller, with rep­til­ian-look­ing breast feath­ers, qui­etly rum­mages through deep leaf lit­ter and fallen logs. The ground-roller then re­turns to the lit­tle slope where she digs her nest bur­row with long pink legs. The hook-billed vanga, white-throated oxy­labes and the scaly ground-roller are among the 193 bird species found in the rain­forests of Mada­gas­car, the dom­i­nant veg­e­ta­tion type on the is­land. With a closed canopy and mul­ti­ple un­der­story lay­ers, trees reach­ing up to 35 me­ters high, and an­nual rain­fall ex­ceed­ing 1.5 me­ters, it pro­vides a home for plant and an­i­mal species found nowhere else on earth. Even with soaked equip­ment, tired legs, and swarms of bit­ing mos­qui­toes, re­searchers are drawn to th­ese forests for the mul­ti­tude of new dis­cov­er­ies wait­ing within. Dr. Frank Hawkins, the cur­rent di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN), based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., spent al­most 20 years liv­ing in Mada­gas­car. While there, he un­der­took ex­ten­sive field­work to study the wildlife through var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional and BirdLife In­ter­na­tional. Dr. Roger Saf­ford, Se­nior Pro­gramme Man­ager of BirdLife In­ter­na­tional based out of Cam­bridge, UK, went to Mada­gas­car in the late 1980s and fell in love with the area. “There was this tremen­dous di­ver­sity in the re­gion and a cer­tain charm seems to be found wher­ever you go. I en­joyed ev­ery minute that I spent there,” he ex­plains. Dr Saf­ford worked on the nearby is­land of Mau­ri­tius for 4 years, where he ex­plored the re­gion and helped BirdLife In­ter­na­tional to es­tab­lish a lo­cal con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion in Mada­gas­car. When Hawkins first ar­rived in Mada­gas­car, he joined an ex­pe­di­tion that found a small pri­mate called an aye-aye that was thought to be al­most ex­tinct. “I was amazed at how lit­tle was known about the wildlife,” says Hawkins. The fact that their group found sev­eral of th­ese lit­tle pri­mates sur­prised many peo­ple: “The more you dig into it, the more you re­al­ize there are absolutely as­ton­ish­ing things to dis­cover in Mada­gas­car about the wildlife…. and the more we dis­cover, the more we re­al­ize that the wildlife of the is­land is re­ally com­pletely out on its own. Many of the species that are there – the fam­i­lies – have been there, iso­lated on their own, for a very, very long time. So they don’t re­ally look or be­have like any­thing else on Earth.”

‘There was so much swear­ing – ev­ery­one was so ex­cited!’

Of all the in­ter­est­ing and unique birds, one of Saf­ford’s fa­vorites is the Mau­ri­tius fody, a spar­row-like bird with strik­ing red plumage on its head, chest and rump, which weaves in­tri­cate nests high in trees. Much like the Gala­pa­gos finches – the birds Dar­win dis­cov­ered

– the is­lands sur­round­ing ( and in­clud­ing) Mada­gas­car each host a dif­fer­ent species of fody, the plumage of each con­tain­ing a char­ac­ter­is­tic amount of red. While work­ing on the is­land of Mau­ri­tius, Saf­ford stud­ied the Mau­ri­tius fody in an ef­fort to dis­cover the cause of its de­cline: “Mau­ri­tius fody had the rather an­ti­so­cial habit of liv­ing in ar­eas where the rain­fall was about 3.5 to 5 me­ters per year – fan­tas­ti­cally wet ar­eas full of mos­qui­tos.” Un­de­terred by the less than hos­pitable con­di­tions, and af­ter many long days in the field, it be­came ap­par­ent that the main rea­son for their de­cline was preda­tors such as rats, and the long-tailed macaques brought from south-east Asia by early set­tlers; “...they can’t cope with [th­ese preda­tors]…in this case mam­mals that can climb trees…when they’ve evolved for thou­sands or mil­lions of years with­out them. [The fodies] just don’t know what to do – they’re de­fense­less.” Due to this dis­cov­ery, a hand­ful of fodies were re­lo­cated to an is­land off the coast of Mau­ri­tius with­out rats or mon­keys. Once there, the birds thrived, and now over one hun­dred Fodies live on the is­land. Hawkins also made some dis­cov­er­ies of his own about the bird species in the re­gion. While look­ing through spec­i­mens of red-tailed van­gas in a Paris mu­seum, he no­ticed that a cou­ple of them were vis­i­bly dif­fer­ent than the oth­ers: fe­male red-tailed van­gas have brown-grey shoul­ders, yet there were two fe­males amongst them with red feath­ers on the shoul­ders, in ad­di­tion to longer tails and shorter wings. In­trigued, he spent four years search­ing in the area where the spec­i­mens were orig­i­nally found, un­til he fi­nally found this bird alive in the wild. It was con­firmed to be a new species, the red-shoul­dered vanga; de­spite be­ing only 20 km from one of the largest towns in Mada­gas­car, no-one had pre­vi­ously known about it. To find this rare species caused so much ex­cite­ment that, when Frank recorded the bird’s song, most of the tape was un­us­able: “there was so much swear­ing in­volved… be­cause ev­ery­body was so ex­cited about it.”

Charles Dar­win: wish you were here…

Through this and other re­search, Hawkins and Saf­ford con­trib­uted to the knowl­edge of bird species through­out the Mala­gasy Re­gion, which in­cludes the is­lands of Mada­gas­car, Sey­chelles, Ro­drigues, Mau­ri­tius, Co­moros, Aldabra and Re­union. Al­most 500 species oc­cur there and about 40% are en­demic – they don’t oc­cur any­where else in the world. Ac­cord­ing to Saf­ford, “If you go into a [pri­mary] for­est… prac­ti­cally ev­ery species you see will be only found on the is­land [or ar­chi­pel­ago] you’re in at the time. That’s how unique the bird life is.” This unique­ness is due in part to the process of evo­lu­tion on is­lands. Cut off from a larger pop­u­la­tion, species on is­lands evolve in re­sponse to the lo­cal habi­tat and avail­able niches. For ex­am­ple, the clas­sic ex­am­ple of is­land evo­lu­tion, Dar­win’s finches, all evolved from one species that colonised all the is­lands in the Gala­pa­gos. Over time, the habi­tat and food avail­able on the is­lands be­gan to drive the emer­gence of dif­fer­ent species from the orig­i­nal founder species – a process called ‘adap­tive ra­di­a­tion’. While Dar­win’s finches are the best-

known ex­am­ple of adap­tive ra­di­a­tion in ac­tion, the van­gas fam­ily is an equally im­pres­sive ex­am­ple: it has ra­di­ated out into 22 sep­a­rate species with dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent bill shapes and for­ag­ing strate­gies since it first colonised Mada­gas­car 25 mil­lion years ago. Th­ese ‘ra­di­a­tions’ demon­strate the strong evo­lu­tion­ary pres­sure on is­lands that can cre­ate many unique species that are dif­fer­ent from their an­ces­tors. Such adap­tive ra­di­a­tion on Mada­gas­car and the sur­round­ing is­lands is why so many species don’t ex­ist any­where else on Earth. Ac­cord­ing to Hawkins, “You see things that are re­ally re­mark­able and of­ten marked by their ex­treme an­cient­ness. They are things that have been on their own and have gone their own way for such a long time.”

Tast­ing the mod­ern-day Dodo

It’s not just the an­i­mals that adapt to the Mada­gas­car is­lands; the peo­ple do as well. The in­hab­i­tants of Mada­gas­car are a mix of South­east Asian, In­dian, Ara­bic, and African de­scent – a mix that has cre­ated a unique cul­ture that grows rice (In­done­sian in­flu­ence), raises zebu cat­tle (African in­flu­ence), and has be­lief sys­tems with ori­gins in Arab and In­done­sian cul­ture. As a whole, they all speak Mala­gasy, a lan­guage with its clos­est rel­a­tive to a lan­guage in the high­lands of Bor­neo. This lan­guage unites the peo­ple of the is­land, but can be dif­fi­cult for vis­i­tors. Ac­cord­ing to Saf­ford, speak­ing French can get you through: “Some peo­ple in even the re­motest vil­lage will gen­er­ally speak French, but not English.” Be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate with lo­cal peo­ple is vi­tal to suc­cess­ful re­search en­deav­ors, Saf­ford points out. “In Mada­gas­car, you have a pre­dom­i­nately ru­ral pop­u­la­tion, fre­quently with an in­ti­mate knowl­edge [and] con­nec­tion to na­ture – and of­ten a de­pen­dence on the nat­u­ral re­sources. They know ev­ery tree, they’ll have their own name for it, and they can tell you all about it. And so you would nat­u­rally in­volve lo­cal peo­ple in any ex­pe­di­tion.” For Hawkins and Saf­ford, in­ter­act­ing with the lo­cals also meant div­ing into an ex­cit­ing new cul­ture and tast­ing new del­i­ca­cies. Hawkins was ad­ven­tur­ous in his culi­nary pur­suits: “When you have great swarms of locusts, a lot of peo­ple eat [them in] large amounts, and in some parts of the west they eat things like mole crick­ets... I’ve eaten cock­roaches and a range of other kinds of crick­ets and things. They gen­er­ally taste pretty much the same – they’re kind of nutty.” While Hawkins was eat­ing in­ver­te­brates on the main­land, Saf­ford was en­joy­ing more typ­i­cal fare on the is­lands, “I do like the zebu cat­tle, even though it doesn’t seem to be highly rated in the rest of the world… in Mau­ri­tius, many of [the peo­ple are] of In­dian ori­gin so they have won­der­ful cur­ries and Creole cook­ery.” Even if not wholly ap­petis­ing, the culi­nary pur­suits of Mala­gasy peo­ple have an im­por­tant im­pact on the for­est around them. Hawkins be­lieves that hunt­ing and the loss of habi­tat are the big­gest con­ser­va­tion con­cerns in Mada­gas­car to­day. “Peo­ple de­pend al­most en­tirely on nat­u­ral re­sources to sur­vive. They have very few op­tions for grow­ing crops, other than oc­cu­py­ing land that’s cur­rently for­est. And for pro­duc­ing pro­tein, there [are] few op­tions avail­able for them to use other than hunt­ing lemurs and birds.” One species in par­tic­u­lar demon­strates the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact that hunt­ing can have. The Mada­gas­car pochard, a beau­ti­ful brown div­ing-duck, was pre­vi­ously known from many lakes on the high plateau, but it was hunted fe­ro­ciously – thanks to be­ing both easy to catch and tasty. This hunt­ing pres­sure, along with habi­tat de­struc­tion and of­ten be­ing caught in fish­ing nets, has led to (what was thought to be) the last of its kind be­ing caught in a bird trap in 1991. It was only four or five years ago that the species was seen again – on a lake with­out

any hunt­ing. The pop­u­la­tion is tiny, with only about 20 birds. “It’s prob­a­bly the rarest bird in the world. There’s a very con­certed ef­fort un­der way to serve that pop­u­la­tion,” ac­cord­ing to Hawkins. He be­lieves other birds are equally vul­ner­a­ble, such as colo­nial nest­ing birds like herons, storks and ibises. There are some an­i­mals that the lo­cal peo­ple won’t hunt how­ever (termed ‘ fady’ in Mala­gasy). One bird that is a hunt­ing no-no is the hamerkop, a medium-sized, brown wad­ing bird whose ap­pear­ance sug­gests some­one has blow-dried its feath­ers straight back from its head. It’s un­clear why this bird is pro­tected, but peo­ple not only won’t hunt them, they won’t even dis­turb them. There are also a range of other taboos. For ex­am­ple, if some­one’s an­ces­tor was saved from en­emy at­tack by the call of a bird, then that per­son will not hunt the bird, even if oth­ers do.

The bat­tle to stop ex­tinc­tion be­gins

With such unique wildlife and a unique peo­ple de­pen­dent on them for their sur­vival, we must ques­tion how to prop­erly con­serve the species, habi­tat and cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to Hawkins, this is a de­vel­op­ment is­sue closely re­lated to gov­er­nance: “There’s very poor gov­er­nance of nat­u­ral re­sources in Mada­gas­car. There was a coup a few years ago which re­ally re­duced the abil­ity of the govern­ment to over­see the use of nat­u­ral re­sources. So lo­cal peo­ple don’t see any other op­tion than to use up the nat­u­ral re­sources… as quickly as they can be­fore some­body else gets to them and steals it away from them.” He be­lieves the key to sav­ing the en­vi­ron­ment is to in­crease the abil­ity of peo­ple to look af­ter th­ese re­sources over the long term, “and for con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions to work with them to do that… but also to en­sure that the in­vest­ment that comes into the coun­try is re­spect­ful of th­ese nat­u­ral re­sources.” This way, the econ­omy can be de­vel­oped with­out de­stroy­ing the is­lands’ wildlife, Hawkins be­lieves. With this im­pres­sive amount of com­bined ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge, Hawkins and Saf­ford have acted as edi­tors on a new ‘hand­book’ on the birds of the Mala­gasy re­gion. With seven vol­umes cov­er­ing main­land Africa,

The Birds of Africa se­ries was first pub­lished in the 1980s, but never cov­ered the Mala­gasy re­gion and all of its unique birds. Hawkins and Saf­ford have spent the last ten years as­sid­u­ously fill­ing in this gap. They have also added a con­ser­va­tion sec­tion (which is not present in the orig­i­nal se­ries) be­cause so many Mala­gasy birds are at risk. Af­ter so many years of work on this guide­book, while they both had full-time po­si­tions at con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions, Saf­ford claims a “slight feel­ing of dis­be­lief that it’s all over.” Pub­lished by Blooms­bury in July 2013, the guide­book is large-for­mat, with over 1,000 pages and beau­ti­ful paint­ings by Brian Small and John Gale. Their next pro­ject: a smaller guide that’s eas­ier to pack into the field. As Hawkins says to any­one in­ter­ested in vis­it­ing this amaz­ing place to see the birds, “Go…as soon as you can, and get very ex­cited be­fore you do go be­cause it’s a very ex­cit­ing place to be. And buy a copy of the book so you are well in­formed about what you see. And spend as much time as you can in the rain­for­est. It’s an in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing place to be ... and there’s still an aw­ful lot to know about the birds... Mysteries [are] out there that I’m guess­ing will be of in­ter­est to many peo­ple to solve in the fu­ture.”


BE­LOW: The par­tic­u­lar Mau­ri­tius fody (Foudia rubra) that Saf­ford watched more than any other. Seen here in a dis­play pos­ture

in the dark, soggy forests on Mau­ri­tius.

RIGHT: Roger Saf­ford (right) at Tsi­tongam­barika, Mada­gas­car, shown with the staff of the Mala­gasy con­ser­va­tion NGO, Asity Mada­gas­car. Ac­cord­ing to Saf­ford, “Or­gan­i­sa­tions like this must (and will) be a big part of the fu­ture of con­ser­va­tion in Mada­gas­car.”

ABOVE: Mala­gasy vil­lager at Lake Be­mamba, Madagsacar. Ac­cord­ing to Saf­ford, he “knew all the birds, and hav­ing de­scribed them all, found them for me, show­ing he wasn’t mak­ing it up.”

BE­LOW: Frank Hawkins hold­ing a wat­tled sun­bird asity (Neo­drepa­nis cor­us­cans).


White-breasted mesites. Ac­cord­ing to Hawkins, “I fol­lowed this group in the evening un­til they de­cided to sleep. They walked

up some di­ag­o­nal lianas, and perched on

a hor­i­zon­tal branch like this, then de­cided

that it was no good so they walked down again, up an­other set of lianas, down again, for about half an hour un­til they found the

right place. Then they qui­etly fought amongst them­selves to be the one in the mid­dle. Once they had

set­tled down, the one on the out­side de­cided he needed to be in the mid­dle so he climbed

over and squeezed him­self in. This went on for an­other half an hour un­til they fi­nally set­tled down to sleep!”

Au­tumn Sar­tain writes about bi­ol­ogy, con­ser­va­tion, and the en­vi­ron­men­tal / out­door life­style. She holds a Mas­ter’s de­gree in Bi­ol­ogy and has worked in the science world since 2004 on var­i­ous ecosys­tems and species. She also loves trav­el­ling, yoga and rock climb­ing. Read more or just say ‘Hi’ at au­tumn­sar­

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